7 Aug 2020

CovidCard will be better used than tracing app, academic says

12:26 pm on 7 August 2020

An academic is upbeat about the bluetooth-powered CovidCard, saying it is a step up from the QR code system that is currently in place for contact tracing.

A QR app has been issued in France in order to keep track of people who are going out during the Covid-19 epidemic.

(File image). Photo: Yann Castanier / Hans Lucas / AFP

Yesterday, the government announced it will be trialled in Rotorua with about 300 people.

CovidCard is a device the size of a credit card - designed to be worn on a lanyard when in public - that aims to detect and record close contacts using bluetooth and store that data for 21 days on a person's card.

AUT's head of computer science Dave Parry told Morning Report that more people were likely to use the system because it did not rely on them having to do anything.

However, he said one of the main issues would be that people might forget to take it along with them, and it would also ideally need to be used by the bulk of the population to be effective.

"It's very similar to the app approach that the Singaporeans have used, but of course, as soon as you make people have to turn phones on or have to do anything like downloading, then the number of people using it goes down very quickly."

The Minister of Health and Director-General of Health have been appealing to the public not to be complacent about using the NZ Covid Tracer app as regular use of it has been slow to catch on.

Whereas with the CovidCard system, the appeal is that it keeps a list of your contacts - not location - without you having to do anything.

Prof Parry also suggested it could be enabled into buildings as well.

"You could increase the surveillance if you're looking at the workplace or health environment for example where you'd actually routinely take the data off the card - assuming people are happy with that in terms of privacy - and then that'd give you a model of what was happening.

"So that even before people have symptoms you've got an idea of where they're meeting and what sort of numbers people are meeting so you can be ready to intervene if you think there's a problem."

Privacy Commissioner John Edwards and the Productivity Commission both have blog posts on the CovidCard, raising questions and concerns about the new proposed system.

However, Prof Parry said he was confident this system was high security.

"It won't actually have details, like who they are, the only way you'll find that out is by going to the ministry's database and be able to convert those numbers into actual people."

Trade Me founder Sam Morgan, who has been part of a team developing the CovidCard since March, told Nine to Noon he recognised that there was a privacy concern among people.

He said his team had consulted with different parties, including Māori, on the system.

"We kind of got to the point where, if we design it well for Māori then we design it well for everybody because 'who trusts the government with their data?' in terms of those sorts of questions."

He said the card would have a central secure database that would record the card holder's name, card number, phone number and maybe email address. That was standard secure database like any other government one, he said.

"All of the contact data is actually only stored on the devices in a secure way, and so when my device is talking to your device and registering you are there that data stays physically as data in my pocket without going to the government or anywhere."

"The cards are clearly encrypted, we've worked quite closely with the government communications security bureau, the defence tech agency."

He said there was also no ability for government agencies to access and use that data on people for purposes other than what it was set up for.

"That's why we've designed the device to have no connectivity to the network, so no data uploaded, no GPS, it doesn't know where you [currently] are."

The entrepreneur said a decision on using the proposed system nationwide was expected at the end of the year.

However, he said even with a highly competent team it would take about six months to create and assemble about five million devices, and by then there may already be community transmission.

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